The Identity of an Object: The Lion’s Mouth

When i was in graduate school I took a class on “Metaphysics” and one of the problems we considered was identity of an object over time.  If you have a deck of cards and swap one out every century, at what point does it become a different deck of cards?  After 1?  After 26?  After 52?     If you answer for example — “after 26” — you are faced with the puzzle that you could re-collect the 26 cards from the original deck that you swapped out and make a new deck which has every bit as much of a claim to being your first deck as the one in your hand from which you have been swapping cards.  And what about other things that upon reflection are collections of smaller parts?  What about a ship in which you swap out boards?  What about a house in which you swap out bricks?  What about a diamond from which you swap out atoms?

When I took my class I decided the question of identity at a time was too hard, because it relied on a harder, antecedent question: what is the identity of an object at a time?  What makes a deck of cards a single deck of cards rather than 52 cards?  If we don’t know the identity of an object at a time we surely don’t know the identity of an object as time passes.

Some of the authors I studied suggested that the important thing about being an object is physical continuity.  If there is a bunch of stuff that is all touching and is surrounded by a bunch of nothingness or of different stuff it’s an object and if not, not.   And some of these authors looked at brains and visual cortices and stuff to understand the underlying psychological architecture which conspired with a mute, undifferentiated universe to produce our perception of objects.

The problem with this example is a lion’s mouth.  The gaping mouth of a lion is not a bunch of stuff that is touching but you had best regard it as an object!  Or the lion will eat you.

This leads me to propose an alternative definition of an object which is, something is an object if and only if we ignore it at our peril.  If it promises the risk of weal or of woe it is an object, if not not.  So “communism” might be an object and a cloud, not, although a high pressure system might be an object.  An object is that which poses a risk, or a reward.

It’s a better definition I aver than the “continuous stuff” definition but it won’t wash..  Supposing that whenever a lion eats a human being it defecates out another being with golden skin and a melodious voice who is interested in constructing a just city state in Antarctica.

Is being eaten by a lion a risk or a reward?  To whom?

To answer that question requires answering the question: is the golden-skinned Antarctica utopian the same as the person who took his journey into the lion’s mouth or is he different.  If he is different then the lion’s mouth is a source of risk and thus an object.  If he is the same then he is a source of benefit and thus an object.  But as we vary the example of what comes out of the lion’s rectum we can come up with things that make us wonder whether that is the same person or a different person.  So the criterion of risk won’t work because it depends upon a criterion of personal identity.

Because a risk must be a risk to something or to somebody.  If there were no objects at all there would be no risk.




18 thoughts on “The Identity of an Object: The Lion’s Mouth

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Defining a thing as something we ignore at our peril does match some realities. On that definition, it’s a “thing” if our spouse ends a disagreement by saying “fine,” or “do what you want.” Peril most dire. We might defuse the situation by not ignoring clams at our pearl, but that’s a different issue.

    In his magnum opus *The Nature of Thought*, Prof. Blanshard had a chapter on “The Thing and Its Architecture.” The thing, conceived as existing separately from everything else, is entirely a creation of the mind. Dividing our experienced world into things is how we navigate it successfully. The central role of division in our thinking is reflected in many creation myths, including the Genesis and Babylonian stories.

    In evolutionary terms, it makes sense. Animals that failed to distinguish between a saber-toothed tiger and the tree next to it did so at their peril, and they did not survive to produce offspring whose genes would have propagated to us.

    To understand anything completely is to see it as a necessarily connected part of an integrated whole. We achieve that kind of insight only partially and rarely, but we know it when we have it: when we see how everything fits together in a single thought, with no divisions or separations. It’s the “Aha!” moment.

    Because our minds prefer simpler, more symmetrical, and more harmonious patterns, we tend to regard as separate things those groups of experiences that are (1) contiguous, (2) continuous, and (3) united by the same purpose — considerations that also apply to our “selves.”

    To regard experiences as having any of those relations, we need at least some higher-order awareness of the experiential groups, in order to combine them into “things.” That requires the ability to hold multiple experiences in mind at the same time and to remember experiences across time: that is, to combine our experiences across spacetime.

    Really. It’s a thing.

    • It’s a thing thing, you wouldn’t understand! I wonder what the force is of saying that our minds prefer harmonious patterns. Maybe there just are harmonious patterns and we ignore them to our detriment.

  2. As N.S Palmer wrote,” The thing, conceived as existing separately from everything else, is entirely a creation of the mind.”
    I agree with this. Things as such are not given in nature. It is the subject which breaks up reality in to separate objects according to his own perspective.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Depends on the definitions of “subject” and “nature.” It might be one of those things that’s on the borderline between sense and nonsense, so it’s hard to talk about with much confidence.

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      What I said is pretty much chapter and verse from Blanshard (Bradley, Rescher, et al). But it seems to me that Quine had some similar ideas. I think that Eric either met (obviously very old) Quine at Harvard or studied his work, so maybe he can enlighten us.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Very exciting even just to hear him lecture! I hadn’t thought about the more distant history of the idealist angle … Hmm …

  3. A very good question! I do not know the answer but I would hazard a guess.

    Perhaps “subjects” as perceivers or cognizers( consciousness) do not exist in nature but their bodies (including brains) are part of nature?

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Or to say the same thing in more words (always a very bad habit for a writer):

      There once was a man who said, “God
      Must think it exceedingly odd
      To find that this tree
      Continues to be
      When there’s no one about in the quad.”

      “Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd.
      I am *always* about in the quad.
      And that’s why the tree
      Will continue to be,
      Since observed by, Yours Faithfully, God.”

      And as long as I’m on limericks, one about H.W.B. Joseph, the 20th-century logician:

      A New College tutor named Joseph
      Says that nobody knows if he knows if
      He knows if he knows,
      Which accounts, I suppose,
      For the mental confusion of Joseph.

  4. Ericlinuskaplan said,” Do the subjects create the brains too? Seems like a vicious circle!”

    Could it be that subject and object are one as some mystics say? But I do not know what it means to say that subject and object are one.

  5. well if you think about an activity like walking — the human body and its muscles and nerves evolved interacting with a gravitational field — so it’s not as if you have the body on one side and gravity on the other — rather there is an ongoing engagement called walking. you can focus on the body or you can focus on the gravity but actually walking is a seamless integration of the two. or think of how money and goods circulate in a market so as to form a price — the price of a toaster arises out of the system not out of the toaster or the particular buyer or particular seller.

  6. I wonder if the mystics mean what you say here.

    Any way , I want to comment on another of your statements in this post:-

    You wrote,”Because a risk must be a risk to something or to somebody. If there were no objects at all there would be no risk.”

    I agree that a risk must be to somebody. That there is no risk, benefit, pain and happiness etc. unless there is an entity who is at risk, in pain, gets benefit or happiness etc. Perhaps a lot of nonsense in idealism comes from the blunder of not understanding this point.

    I want to say that I liked your book, “Does Santa Exist?” very much and found it very interesting.

  7. Mikey says:

    If all identity is analogue, and the deck of cards is in fact just 99.8% the deck of cards that you think it is, then you might, for shorthand, say “That’s the deck of cards” or even “That’s 100% the deck of cards.”

    But then you start taking cards out and doing your weird tricks and it goes down to 64.2% the deck of cards and then you say “No, it’s no longer the deck” but I say “64.4% is close enough – I mean it’s not as much the deck of cards as it was before, but I think it’s close enough.” And you say “No it’s not, it’s got to be at least 71% and anyway, this ‘deck’ is only 64.2% not 64.4%” and we realise we’re using different scales.

    Then it comes down to this: in most cases it’s pretty obvious what’s what because most things are up in the 99.xx% grade of being whatever they are. And in the other cases, like when people start moving atoms around, then it’s a matter of opinion.

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